Oct 312009

foot.in.mouthA quick websearch will reveal lots of lists of British and ‘merican false friends – words and expressions that appear to mean the same thing but in fact mean something different. In all honesty, I don’t think they cause me many problems because it’s generally pretty obvious when we’re talking about different things. It’s the sociolingiusitic stuff that has wound me in hotter soup, but nevertheless, when the vocabulary differences aren’t quickly apparent, things sure get tricky.

Here are a few that have got me in trouble:

Homely – When I used this word to describe a hostess who had made me very comfortable and welcome in her beautiful and well run home, I had no idea I was saying she was plain and ugly.

Socialised medicine – This sounds like a such desirable thing to my British ear, and I have to keep reminding myself that someone using the expression here is probably being derogatory.

Quite – I constantly have to slap my wrists and forget ‘quite’ doesn’t mean ‘fairly’ or ‘pretty’ and that it means ‘completely’ or ‘100%’. Of course we can use it like this in BrE with some ungradable adjectives, as in ‘It’s quite empty/You’re quite correct.’ Americans might want to take note of this one. Don’t be like the guy who went on a first date with one of my British friends and told her she was ‘quite pretty’. He was lucky to get a second date.

Eligible – Dispel all thoughts of Mr Darcy from your mind. It seems asking if someone is eligible is a polite way of enquiring whether they are authorized to work here. Don’t be like me and write back saying ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean by ‘eligible’?’ They might think you are an uppity Brit who is quick to take offence at the suggestion that you might be illegal.

Fairy lights – It’s best not to comment on these when you’re visiting your gay friends. I think the correct term is ‘Holiday lights’.

Wicked – I gather this one is regional, and in Boston I might have got away with it. But when I described the deceased at a funeral as having a ‘wicked sense of humour’, I was trying to say what a lovely funny guy he was. The guy officiating during the ceremony repeated it back to the congregation as: ‘And although he had a sarcastic [ie. unkind] sense of humour, he was dearly loved.’ Everyone thought it was an odd thing to say, and it took me a while to figure out that it was all my fault.

Have any other folks come a cropper with a false friends here?

Oh and Brits wanting to test their ‘merican might like to try this quiz.

 Posted by at 6:11 am

  34 Responses to “Putting my foot in my mouth”

  1. One was vocabulary, the other pronunciation.
    I was in San Francisco and a friend of a friend “employed” me to paint his flat.
    I want to the local paint shop and stupidly started by saying-
    Hi, do you sell paint?
    I had just arrived from south london.
    No, was the reply.
    I was stunned – maybe American humour.
    I tried again.
    No, i’m sorry, do you sell paint?
    I looked around, confused. There were buckets off it.
    Paint i explained, i need some paint§
    Look we only sell gallons and quarts.

    The other problem, up the road was vocab.

    Hi, i need a torch.
    Sorry don’t sell them.
    No, no you do, i just need a torch.
    Look; i’m going camping……

    Most embarassing – waiting in queue/line for my first frozen banana.
    10 Americans in front of me.
    Frozen bAnAnA
    Frozen bAnAnA
    Frozen bAnAnA
    Frozen bAnAnA
    I cant’t, i’m going to say Barnarna…
    Frozen bAnAnA
    Frozen bAnAnA
    Frozen bAnAnA
    oh no, barnarna/bAnAna, let’s call the whole thing off
    Frozen bAnAnA
    Frozen bAnAnA
    Frozen bAnAnA
    er…. er..; I’ll have the same please.

  2. And as no one has mentioned it yet… I’ll just go on ahead and be crass, be careful of whom you request a “rubber” from 😉


  3. Oh Chris, thank you! Ha! Nice pant story – and the torch – and your ingenious solution to the banana problem.
    My feeling is there are times when the mission gets critical and we just have to throw our feelings of identity out, and caution to the wind. It happened to me in a supermarket when I was look for Worcestershire sauce. My requests drew a blank but I knew I’d seen it somewhere. ‘Perhaps you say somethings like Worrr-sess-terr-shy-errr?” Bingo – we found it.

  4. Oh feel free to be as crass as you like, Karenne. To make you feel at home, let me tell the tale of the pretty young American girl staying in her hotel who asked her British male colleague to knock her up in the morning.

  5. Nice pants!
    How do you know?

  6. Ha!Ha! The bloke must have felt so lucky.

    Having lived in both countries I really hear you on Worrr-sess-terr-shy-errr sauce… I remember conversely being completely, completely lost in London and asking for “Lie-Chest-er” or could it have been “Lie-cester” and oh, how I recall the smirky looks I got from people who simply let me wonder about Covent Garden aimlessly minutes away from Leicester Square!

  7. Helloooo…

    once again, thinking of my poor wife when she first came to the UK with her noisy and vivacious cousin Diane. One day, they were invited to a party at someone’s fancy flat in Knightbridge. The host let them in, then Diane immediately tripped over a rug as she entered the room where most people were standing.

    Conversation stopped when she whooped loudly. With everyone looking at her, Diane smiled flirtatiously and said:

    “Jeez, I nearly fell on my fanny there, but hey, no damage done. Fanny unbruised!”

  8. Chris, did I update my first comment and remove my allusion to your (no doubt) very fine pants? I’ve modified comment back to what I hope was the original. But truth is I can’t remember what I said.
    One day I’d like to devote a chunk of time to learning how to use this blogging software.

  9. Karenne, I’ve heard of that place Lie-chester here too. Can’t find it on the map. Where the heck is it?
    Ken, I generally like to try to run a respectable kinda establishment at this blog. But I’m so glad to see you that I don’t mind you lowering the tone any time you like – if Kareene hasn’t beaten you to it, of course.

  10. The other taboo-ism that goes the other way of course is the idea of nipping outside to bum a fag. That last word is so taboo in the US (for good reason) that I find liberal US friends are stunned that we still use it (even though they know what it means to us).

    On Ken’s example, I’m currently in Australia, and have been surprised to learn that while “fanny” has the BrEng meaning over here, “fannypack” (rather than “bumbag”) still seems to be the word of choice for that item.

  11. Oh, and I forgot my favourite one. An American friend of a friend had hired a car and was driving round the UK. In one town he decided to stop, and rolled down the window to ask a passer-by:
    “Excuse me, is there a lot around here?”
    (Completely baffled look)
    “Errm, a lot of what?”

  12. Is there a lot around here? Yeah, a lot of confusion by the sound of it. Ha! Long may we delight in it.:-)
    Great to see you, Andy. That pcness you bring up is really interesting because I think it’s one of the reasons I’m still intermediate at this ‘merican variety. I just don’t feel it on the same scale as ‘mericans.
    For example, the word ‘niggdardly’ has raised huge controversies here.
    I look at it and I think it means ‘mean’ and I wonder what all the fuss could be about. But at the same time, I can sort of see that it doesn’t matter what it means to me and dictionaries – maybe other folks perceptions might matter more. Hey, might this mean I’m approaching upper intermediate?

  13. Dammit Chris, you were two steps ahead of me weren’t you. And I didn’t see it coming… Duh! 🙂

  14. You know it’s funny, the word wicked actually enjoyed a brief period of fashionablity when I was younger, mainly amongst skater types “Dude, that ollie was like wicked awesome”, or as Chuck D from Public Enemy said, “Hear the drummer get wicked”. But that’s kind of faded out now. Now we just use it when we do our really bad Ali G. type fake British accents.

  15. I tried to tell an American lady not to get too depressed about a difficult situation she was in. I sent her an email telling her to keep her pecker up.

    I got an email back telling me to keep my pecker up, she was a woman and didn’t have a pecker.

    Neither did I, but when I checked a dictionary and read what it meant in Am.E. I realised… oops, I did.

    My favourite muddle up was when I was talking to an attractive young American colleague I’d been working with for a while.

    She looked at me and said, ‘John, I’m having a shower at the weekend. Would you like to come?’

    I almost choked as I’d just swallowed some German beer.

  16. Oh Nicki, I have a theory about Ali G – I reckon the US was the very best place to film Borat because of the politeness rules here. Wicked indeed!

  17. My mother always used to tell me to keep my pecker up, John. Now what does that say? And maybe I was imagining it, but I had the feeling that there was often a kinda wicked glint in her eye.
    Loved your shower story!

  18. Karenne’s reminder about rubbers reminds me of an incident. I did a course at Pilgrim’s in Canterbury a few years back and there were some Italian gals there. One of them, Maria, was very shy – especially about speaking English – and very homesick. One day she went into the University supplies shop on the campus and asked for a rubber. The male student serving and all his mates started giggling. Maria was terribly upset and really wanted to leave for Italy on the spot – we had to do a lot of consoling.
    I used to sell cigarettes at the October Fest in Munich. The guys were always asking for Pariser (the German term for this item). I, in my ignorant innocence used to say, ‘oh, I’ll check to see if they have that brand in the shop! I finally found out what the joke was – didn’t bother me much, though.

  19. Yes, it’s funny that word wicked. Where I come from in the south of Ireland – “wicked weather lad”, means it hasn’t stopped raining for days. And if the teacher / mother or whoever is described as – “oh, she was wicked”, that means, she was very angry indeed.

  20. Hey I don’t get the “rubber” anecdote above–if, as I’ve been led to believe, “rubber” is the acceptable term for what I would call “eraser”, why did the people in the shop snicker at poor Maria like that?

    And, if in Br.E. “rubber” has the same meaning as in AmE. then why the hell do I have to teach it that way to these Spanish kids? I mean it’s bad enough I have to use the word “trousers”, but if in the end we’re just setting them up for humiliation like in Maria’s case, should the textbooks all switch to “eraser”, or what’s going on here?

    Interesting aside, in Peninsular Spanish, they have the exact same phenomenon, the word for “rubber” (“goma”) refers both to condoms and that little thing we use to erase pencil marks.

  21. Yes, Nicky, here in Munich we always explain what has happened to the word ‘rubber’ and that it would be more advisable to use the word eraser when you need to rub something out / erase something in your copy-book. Germans are pretty down-to-earth on these matters, anyhow.

  22. The phrase “socialized medicine” has to have been coined by some politically astute right-wing pundit who knew that the connotation between “socialized” and “socialist” would be unmissable. For most Americans, the word “socialist” conjures up images of Milton’s Circles of Hell, and anyone slightly left of George W. Bush could be a “socialist.” When coupled with the demonization of free health care offerings in the rest of the world, it is a powerful tool against any health care reform.

    The shift by the left (and in the US, the “left” is nowhere near as “left” as a European “left”) to use the more neutral phrase “universal health care” is an attempt to linguistically de-yoke the “socialized/socialist” cart.

  23. Thanks so much for chipping in with some wicked (in the nicest possible sense) responses Joan, and sorry for my tardy response – was off on my travels.
    Now, Nicky, you’ve raised another interesting one with ‘trousers’ – that little pocket of clothing vocabulary. Like many Brits no doubt, I grinned from ear to ear at the thought of American guys walking the streets in their pants, especially when they hold them up with suspenders. That cuffs could appear at the end of the leg was a new one for me as well. It’s taken a while to get used to and the finer points of jumpers (sweaters) with polo (turtle) necks still require concentration when shopping, but I think I’m more or less capable of dressing myself in the mornings now.

  24. Oh well put, Russell!
    What surprises me is I still have to think twice when someone says ‘socialised medicine’. It is an odd collocation in British English, but it sounds so utterly attractive.

  25. OOOh I so enjoyed this thread ! Karenne mentionned Vicki’s name and now i’m sooooo enriching my vocab !! I’ll come back for sure ! no one ever explained me all those subtleties and nuances !ah ah ! great ! love this blog !


  26. Welcome Alice and so glad you stopped by. Pls hurry back.

  27. So, my question for BrE speakers is, if you guys use the word “rubbber” for prophylactics (as we do in the States), is it then OK if I stop teaching “rubber” to the kids?

  28. If you can trust them to use some other form of contraception i don’t see a problem.

  29. Ha! Oh Chris, you crease me up.

    Nicky, both ‘rubber’ and ‘condom’ seem like jolly handy words to know on certain occasions to me.

  30. You’ve reminded me of my father Nicky. He had five children and always excused himself from discussions of the best forms of contraception. He said he only knew five different methods that didn’t work.

  31. When I came back to France after a (rather long) stay in the UK, there I was dicussing my mum’s jam “très bonne confiture, sans préservatifs !” my mum looked horrified as “préservatifs” mean condoms in French and NOT “conservateurs” (=preservatives in English). My mum thought I was “losing my own language” and begged me not to return to the UK ever again!

  32. Hahaha,.. LOL, that’s funny Alice,. You know what, whenever I go out with my friends or go to the party they always advise my to bring “préservatifs” =Condom= to be more safe,.. No Big Deal in bringing condoms, instead of bringing accidentally in love baby. LOL

  33. […] that always makes me giggle, see Chris’ comment on buying paint in the US that he posted here.  Posted by Vicki at 6:12 […]

  34. My boyfriend and me went to SanFran. He still has a lovely English accent and decided to order a piece of cake for me. Guess what he got instead. A can of diet coke. Cake and coke, how is it possible?

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